Despair (Rainer Werner Fassbinder / West Germany-France, 1978):
(Despair: Eine Reise ins Licht)

"Dedication: Artaud, Van Gogh, Zürn." Preston Sturges isn't listed, but he should have been, for this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's funniest picture, and closer than you would expect to Unfaithfully Yours. Nabokov's original is the extended buildup to a monumental joke, the film loses nothing -- and, in fact, gains a good deal -- by moving its punchline upfront: It's a tricky thing, to fabricate a state of mind, but Fassbinder has Tom Stoppard's grand adaptation in one hand and Dirk Bogarde's sublimely arched eyebrow in the other, and proceeds to build a lambent house of cards. Nostalgia for "Kremlin bells" undercuts the émigré's epicurean lifestyle, though Hermann Hermann (Bogarde) makes himself at home in 1930s Berlin, complemented by Andréa Ferréol, his ripe, dense wife. ("Have you no sense of indecency," he thunders at her half-dressed figure. "Off with it!") The antihero's chocolate factory (with a Hitler poster) figures in a superb gag involving an emotional declaration juxtaposed with sugary dolls on conveyor belts, dissociation festers until Hermann becomes "a man outside himself" -- he peeks through the mirror maze at his polar opposite (Klaus Löwitsch) and sees a doppelganger, a murder plan is born. The killing takes place at a pastoral clearing, the plan unravels rapidly at a lake resort by way of Mr. Klein and The Tenant, a thread later picked by Cronenberg in Spider. The syrupy schnapps and the "murder"/"merger" bit are unmissably Nabokov, Volker Spengler's Viking bohemian and the glass mansion served by a maid in Petra von Kant gowns are inspired elaborations, but the masterstroke lies in the silent film the characters catch at a matinee show, a gangster drama about twins that achieves its doubling illusion by shooting "the line binding them." Fassbinder erases the line and then erases the twin, so that Hermann's madness is left by itself to reflect the political depredations of Germany at the edge of the precipice. With Alexander Allerson, Peter Kern, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, Bernhard Wicki, Adrian Hoven, Roger Fritz, and Ingrid Craven.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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